At some point early during California’s COVID lockdown, I made an emergency trip to the dentist. I was in pain, preoccupied by fears of root canals in a pandemic, and as a result, when the receptionist who met me at the door wielding a thermometer like a gun asked me about my sense of smell, I flubbed my answer.
No, I told her. I did not have a sense of smell.
As the poor receptionist backed away from me in panicked horror, I realized my error. “But it’s OK,” I tried to reassure her. “I lost it long before the pandemic.”
Anosmia, or the loss of the sense of smell, emerged early on as a striking symptom of COVID-19. Many patients recover the sense as they clear the virus, but as many as 35% according to Dr. Eric Holbrook, the chief of rhinology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and associate professor at Harvard University’s Medical School, suffer long-term loss. How long? Scientists aren’t yet sure.
I lost my sense of smell 20 years ago, following sinus surgery. It was sudden and shocking, especially because for the first two decades or so of my life, my sense of smell was almost too keen. Like some kind of human bloodhound, I often caught scents before anyone around me. A hint of chlorine wafting on a summer breeze from the public pool down the street. The slightest trace of chocolate lingering in my childhood kitchen that meant one of my siblings had snuck a sweet. The smell of the ocean, when it was still too far away to see or hear. I knew the smell of all my friends, and I also could describe the smell of most of their houses, and many of their hometowns. I was one of those people who had to avoid certain places, not just because of the odors but because of the feelings they invoked in me. Other scents lifted me up, flooding me with secret joy or comfort. My mother’s rose perfume. The way the earth smells just after it rains. Cinnamon toast.
Then one day it was all just gone.
For many years, I could still clearly conjure those scents in my mind, but now that has faded too, like the echo of a sound that reverberates away and away and away until there is almost nothing left.
Until the arrival of this deadly pandemic, we didn’t hear much talk about the most primal, but least understood of our five senses — but its loss affects people profoundly.
I was one of those people who had to avoid certain places, not just because of the odors but because of the feelings they invoked in me.
First and foremost, you can’t really taste food without a sense of smell. You can pick up sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Hot chile peppers too. But that’s really it. There are basic health risks, too: Without a sense of smell you can put yourself in danger with kitchen gas or poison yourself with cleaning products, or by cheerfully eating rancid food without a clue that you have done so. I’ve done all three things. You can also, as I did last month, burn up an entire triple batch of holiday cookies and not notice the flames licking out of the oven a few feet away until the smoke alarm blares and the neighbor shows up with a fire extinguisher.
There are also hygiene issues: Some doctors report that some patients have to be counseled about deodorant and gently reminded that while they can no longer smell anything, most of the rest of the world can still smell them. Some people — that would be me — fail to register when their dogs get sprayed by a skunk, and let them into the bedroom. (This can lead to relationship issues, if your spouse comes home and wakes you up demanding to know what the hell you have done.)
And for some patients, the effects are more debilitating still. Some lose interest in food, and wither like plants moved away from the sun. Some grow deeply, inexplicably depressed, almost as though they have been cut off from the world in some powerful and ineffable way.
I’ve been in this place of blankness for a long time. It was the very beginning of the 21st century — before September 11, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, before Facebook and QAnon — the last time my nose was good for much besides sniffling and sneezing.
But now, in this awful pandemic moment, I wonder if my nose may finally be useful again. Because over the years, I have picked up some wisdom on how to live with a nonworking nose. This wisdom hasn’t been much in demand: Anosmia is rare, particularly in young people, although some older people start to lose their sense of smell after about age 65.
People can also lose their sense of smell thanks to chronic sinus problems, or because they have sustained a head injury, or due to something called postviral smell loss, which is just what it sounds like: losing your sense of smell after a virus. That’s what scientists think is going on with people with COVID-19. What’s remarkable about COVID-19 patients experiencing anosmia as opposed to other postviral patients, however, is that they tend to be younger, in their twenties and thirties. And while doctors are hopeful many will recover this sense, it could take months to years, because the neurons in your nose have to replace themselves, and then they have grow new axons that extend up and connect to the brain. And this takes time.
Here then, is a user’s guide to living with a nose that doesn’t work.
Lesson One: Disbelief or Pity — Pick Your Poison
If you ask someone with a working nose how often in the course of a day they talk about what they are smelling, or have smelled, or look forward to smelling in the future, chances are they will answer that it is not very often.
They are mistaken. One of the first things you notice when you lose your sense of smell is that other people talk about how things smell all the time. Like, more often than they talk about the weather in New York or traffic in Los Angeles or possibly even bad behavior on Twitter. Often (pre-pandemic anyway), when they do it, they will approach you and shove some flower or herb or allegedly pungent piece of cheese under your nose.
“Smell this,” they will demand.
You will explain (maybe even somewhat apologetically, even though really why are you apologizing?) that you can’t smell it, because in fact you can’t smell anything.
At this point, I’ve noticed, the world divides itself into two groups of people.
One group won’t believe you. They might even shove the herb or the flower or the cheese closer at you, sometimes even up into your poor nonworking nose. “No, this is really strong,” they will insist, looking at you expectantly.
People in the other group believe you instantly, and in many cases, a look of profound pity will come over their faces. “I’m so sorry,” they will say, as if they themselves had done something to knock you down to four senses instead of five.
They will often continue apologizing and expressing sorrow until you change the subject. The next time they forget (and they will, usually, since no one can ever remember this about you, and also because it is so natural to talk about how things smell), they will apologize even more profusely.
Then, if you happen to be at a restaurant or a dinner party (again, this part may not apply during the pandemic), they will stare at you while you eat, as though you are a robot going through the motions of being human, eating food when you cannot possibly enjoy it.
Lesson Two: It Is a Loss
I think the people in the second group tend to be more considerate, but I also find them a little harder to take. The reason, of course, is because they are right: Losing your sense of smell is something to be sorry about. It is a huge loss.
I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t get depressed when I lost my sense of smell.
Even so. Sometimes the absence hits hard. In the first weeks after my daughter was born, our house was filled with people coming to meet her. Several of them did the exact same thing: They held her in their arms and they kissed her beautiful head and then looked up at me with wonder and joy in their eyes. “Don’t you just love how she smells?” It broke my heart every time. If I think really hard about it, I can remember the particular smell of roses in the summer rain and woodsmoke in the fall and lots of other stupid odors, too, like hot dogs, and tennis balls and wet towels left too long on the bathroom floor. But I have no idea how my own children smell.
Lesson Three: Supermarket Sell-By Dates Are Your Friends — and So Are Friends Who Will Tell You When You Smell
I grew up with parents who didn’t necessarily believe in supermarket sell-by dates. When I got married, I acquired a wonderful father-in-law who has, on more occasions than I can count, pulled something out of my kitchen trash and put it into a bowl or a cup, and from there into his mouth.
But I am here to tell you: When you lose your sense of smell, sell-by dates become your friends. Heed them. And then — and this part is trickier — try to get yourself a food-tester.
For a long time my husband was my food-tester, but since he spent his childhood eating out of the trash, I am not sure he is fully qualified. My children have turned out to be perfect for this. Young people tend to have keener senses of smell then older people, and since I prepare most of their food, they have a vested interest in helping me out.
You also, on occasion, will need a personal smell-tester. Children are useful here, too, since they will not hesitate to tell you if you stink.
It’s hard to count on anyone else to do this.
It’s a funny thing. Go into the world with a smudge of frosting on your face, or a tiny fleck of cabbage or cake on your shirt, and perfect strangers will run at you to help you remove it. (Again, this is pre-pandemic. These days, hopefully they won’t touch you.) But even your best friends, the ones who almost cry at the thought of you not being able to smell, even they will have trouble telling you when you need to shower.
Lesson Four: There Are Advantages
Really, there are — although this may be particularly true in my line of work.
When I was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, I once did a story on graft in the local housing authority. I won’t bore you with the details, but as part of investigating a bid-rigging scheme, I went door to door through a housing project and asked residents to let me examine their toilets. If they said yes, I had to climb down underneath and behind their commodes to try to read the labels. Most of these bathrooms, I should note, were sparkling clean, but a few of them were not. It didn’t bother me a bit.
Speaking of toilets. (Sorry, but this is a story about smells.) Let’s talk about port-a-potties. Before I lost my sense of smell, I simply could not use them. It was impossible. Untenable. And many a concert, festival, and other large venue was ruined for me as a result. Now? Not a problem at all. This is particularly useful in a pandemic in California, because public port-a-potties are suddenly everywhere.
Same goes for scented candles, and rooms that are full of them. Before I lost my sense of smell, I am not sure I had any close friends who loved scented candles. The smell was too much. I couldn't go to their homes, and thus it was hard to nurture the friendship. The same goes double for patchouli. I went to UC Berkeley in the 1990s, which instilled in me a love of books and a deep aversion for the smell of patchouli. By the time I graduated, the smell made me angry. But not anymore.
You get the idea: A whole dimension of the world has been taken from you. But you get a consolation prize. You can go places and do things that might have been impossibly uncomfortable for you before.
I am sorry that I am using port-a-potties and patchouli oil as a metaphor for this, but bear with me. I think losing a sense can make you, for lack of a better word, slightly less sensitive. The loss is lamentable — heartbreaking at times and awkward and even dangerous at others. (And we haven’t even talked that much about the cooking disasters.) But it can also, maybe, if you let it, make you a little more open to the world.
Lesson Five: Cinnamon Toast Still Tastes Sweet
One of the weirdest aspects of the pandemic for me is that suddenly, everyone, or a lot more people anyway, are talking about the sense of smell, and what it’s like to live without it.
But of course, that pales in comparison to the sickness and death the pandemic has wrought, not to mention the businesses that shuttered, the jobs that vaporized, the lonely isolation.
Sometime during this period, I started making cinnamon toast again. I had stayed away from it after I lost my sense of smell. It used to be one of my favorite things to eat. I loved the smell of cinnamon, and the way it mixed with the sugar and then melted into the butter on a piece of warm bread. Of all the eating experiences I lost when I lost my sense of smell, I mourned cinnamon toast the most — not just the flavor, but also the comfort the flavor gave me: It tasted of my childhood, of being warm inside on a gray day, curled up with a book watching the rain streak the window, feeling safe and cared for.
But here I am now, taking the time to mix cinnamon powder into sugar until it is just the right shade of light brown, and then sprinkling it very precisely onto perfectly toasted-bread. There’s something crazy about this, I know — after all, I could skip the spice entirely and just dump sugar on butter and it would taste the same to me.
But I don’t care. I eat it, and with every bite, I feel the comfort and joy of being alive. And that is the last lesson: Life may not be the same with no sense of smell. You may be surrounded by people who don’t believe you, and the world may be full of reminders of what you have lost. And you may even go through it smelling like a skunk, unable to fully protect yourself from dangerous gases and patchouli oil. But if you are open to it, it can still be very sweet. ●